Located where freshwater and saltwater habitats meet along the edge of Charlotte Harbor, the Alligator Creek unit of Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park in Punta Gorda is an outreach center and living laboratory of the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center. Here, the stir of a salt breeze riffles across cypress domes close to the sea.
Location: Punta Gorda
Length: 2.8 miles
Bug Factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: yes, at nature center
The center is open 8-3 Mon-Sat, closed holidays. After hours, you can park outside the gate and walk in, adding 0.4 mile to your hike.
The kids will love the interactive exhibits in the Caniff Environmental Center, and if you pack a picnic lunch, there are several picnic benches in scenic spots along the Eagle Point Trail.
From I-75 exit 161, head west on CR 768 for 1.3 miles, which becomes CR 765 (Burnt Store Rd) just before crossing US 41. Continue another 1.2 miles to the park entrance on the right.
The 3-mile trail system is made up of the Eagle Point Trail, which loops through pine flatwoods and scrubby flatwoods before circling a needlerush marsh and freshwater lake; the Flatwoods Trail, which sends you into pine flatwoods dotted with cypress domes; and the Three Lakes Trail, which leads out to the edge of several mangrove-lined lagoons. Start your hike on the Eagle Point Trail, which begins to the right of the boardwalk near the restrooms.
Walk past the picnic benches to the blue and white “Trail” sign, and duck into the cabbage palm hammock. The trail continues onto a bridge over a small stream, where yellow blooms of tickseed add splashes of color to the grass. On the other side of the bridge you enter the cabbage palm flatwoods. Follow the arrows up to the “South Florida Flatwoods” sign. The habitat yields to scrubby flatwoods, with laurel oak, myrtle oak, and wax myrtle joining saw palmetto in the understory.
At 0.3 mile, a spur trail leads to the left down to a canopied bench with a view of a salt marsh crowded with black needlerush. When you return to the main trail, turn left. The trail continues along the eastern edge of the marsh. Duck under the buttonwood as you come up to a T intersection. On the right are a few picnic benches on the edge of Alligator Creek, along with a canoe access point. Turn left and cross the high bridge over the creek, looking down at the white mangroves crowding the shores. On the far side, you come to a fork. Keep right.
Meandering through hammocks of live oaks and cabbage palms, the trail reaches a picnic bench at 0.7 mile, next to a dense stand of myrsine. Reaching a T intersection, the trail turns left directly in front of a dark pond reflecting the cabbage palms crowding around it. At the next trail junction, keep right as the trail returns to cabbage palm flatwoods, skirting the edge of a large freshwater marsh. The Caniff Environmental Center looms in front of you. Off to the left is a small building that serves as a bird blind. Duck inside, and take advantage of the one-way glass to watch warblers, sparrows, and Baltimore orioles visiting the various feeders. Bird identification guides help you in your task.
As you approach the back of the environmental center, you’ve hiked 0.9 mile. You can walk through the center and back out to the parking lot, or continue your hike by turning right to follow the Flatwoods Trail. The trail crosses a bridge. At the fork, keep right to walk down to the observation deck along the pond.
When you return to the main trail, turn right, and right again at the next bench. The T intersection at 1 mile marks the beginning of the next trail loop. Turn right. The Flatwoods Trail winds through the cabbage palm flatwoods, carving a path through the thick jumble of saw palmetto and wax myrtle. At marker 18, the trail comes to another T intersection. The Flatwoods Trail goes to the left; turn right to follow the outer loop, the Three Lakes Trail.
Following the Three Lakes Trail, you walk through a series of palm hammocks along the edge of the estuary. Keep alert as to the twists and turns. At 1.3 miles, you reach the first of several boardwalks connecting the hammocks. It crosses a small waterway. A mangrove-ringed lake lies off to your right. The next boardwalk starts just beyond a bench. Sea myrtle and white mangroves crowd in closely as you cross. Surrounded by Spanish bayonets, a bench sits beneath a live oak covered in wild pine and resurrection fern. The trail continues on to another boardwalk, this one tunneling through the mangroves to reach the edge of a broad lake, where a strong salt and silt aroma fills the air. Crossing the final bridge, you return to the cabbage palm flatwoods.
After 1.8 miles, the trail reaches a T intersection with the Flatwoods Trail. Turn right to continue around the loop. Crossing a bridge over a dark canal lined with white mangrove, the trail drops down into an area lined with sawgrass. At the next T intersection, turn left. When you reach 2 miles, a sign ahead of you says “Not a Trail.” Turn left to follow the footpath, passing marker 24 before you emerge at a picnic bench. The trail crosses a bridge and re-enters the flatwoods as a corridor through the saw palmetto. Continuing into a palm hammock with a picnic bench at 2.3 miles, the trail curves to the left and you can see the environmental center in the distance. Within moments, you’re back at the beginning of the loop, facing an “End of Trail” sign. Turn right. At the T intersection, turn left.
When you return to the back of the environmental center, you’ve hiked 2.7 miles. Climb up the staircase to take a walk through the center, which showcases information on the various habitats found throughout Charlotte Harbor Preserve State State Park. Exiting out the front of the building, continue down the boardwalk and the paved path. Keep left at the fork. The boardwalk leads back to your starting point at the parking lot. You’ve completed a 2.8-mile hike.